I was a bit more prepared in Uzbekistan than I had been in Tajikistan, and had pre-booked cheap hostels with good reviews ahead along my intended route of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. I hoped by the time I got to Khiva (in 6 days) my Turkmenistan visa would have arrived, allowing me to transit on through via the Darvaza Fire Crater and Ashgabat before catching the ferry to Azerbaijan from Turkmenbashi. It all seemed like a good plan!
I was expecting a lot of hassle and delay at the border crossing from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan, after having read (and heard from other travellers) that Uzbek customs are particularly brutal and insist on searching everything. I’d even heard stories of laptops and hard-drives being searched for ‘illegal content’, and private photos being searched on media-phones. As it was, I passed through with just a cursory glance into a couple of my bags. I’m certain that a positive attitude and lots of smiling at border crossings definitely helps speed things up. The motorbike helps too, as most people are interested in it, and some officials even ask for their photos to be taken with it. I’m also sure being alone helps too – maybe they just feel sorry for me!
I passed down the other side of the mountain range separating the two countries, into a flat, fertile plain packed-full of fruit & vegetables. The area seems particularly good for growing melons, judging by the millions and millions (at least a trillion) I past piled up high in stalls along the road.
It was hot and getting hotter, so when I passed a huge lake, I pulled off to see if I could take a quick dip.
I found a small local tourist resort and lots of people having fun on pedalo boats.
I was dying for a cold water and approached a lady by a drinks stall to buy one. As I reached for my wallet, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t yet obtained any local money. Oops! I asked if she’d take Tajik somoni, or US dollars, but she didn’t. “Oh well – never mind”, I thought.
Just as I apologised and walked away, the lovely lady ran up to me and handed me a large, cold bottle of water – for free! Wow! I thanked her profusely and got her and the other lady stall owner together for a photo. The younger of the two seemed to take a liking to me and insisted on a couple more photos of just us two; I did notice she wasn’t made of wood 😉
I’d heard Uzbeks were friendly people, and I couldn’t wait to meet more of them. Yes, I thought it was going to be a good stay.
I arrived in the big, busy Uzbek capital of Tashkent mid-afternoon. Traffic was heavy, but it seemed to flow OK. Although much smaller than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with some 30 million people, almost 3 million of these in Tashkent.
On the way to my hostel, I pulled up alongside an interesting building to take a photo, and was left stranded when my bike wouldn’t start. It had done this a couple of times before when it had been really hot (it started in Mongolia), and I guessed the battery may be slowly dying. I waited 15 minutes for the bike to cool, which usually works, and it did, and raced off to find my guesthouse.
Young lad Oybek and his father ran a clean, tidy guesthouse near the bazaar (market) in the city centre. It was there I met my first Mongol Ralliers, two Brit lads that had flown ahead of their team who were in 2 Nissan Micras because their Azerbaijan visas hadn’t come through in time. They told some good stories, but even before I had met them I had already made up my mind to do the rally in a year or two, and try and get my mechanic brothers out of Norwich (Andy and Eddie take note! 😉 ).
Nathan, the Californian I had met in Dushanbe, arrived about an hour after me in his shared taxi, and we ventured down to the bazaar at the end of the road to find some food and a beer. I changed 100 US dollars for 300,000 som on the black-market from a man with a large black bin-bag full of money. There were loads of these guys wondering around, so it wasn’t too difficult to find one. I got given a large pile of 300 notes, as the most commonly used denomination is the 1,000 som note. I also got 70,000 more som than the official exchange rate, which is a well-known fact in Uzbekistan, and an indicator of the level of corruption (it gives certain people access to cheap currency). Rampant inflation since independence from the Soviets in 1991, and slack fiscal policy, has meant huge piles of money are required even for the weekly shopping. At least it made me feel rich, with all my pockets bulging with cash (until I quickly spent it)!
After a bit of searching (for wifi), we found a decent British Pub called ‘The Chelsea’, except for the name (‘The Norwich’ had been relegated), and there we met another guy on the Mongol Rally called Gary, who had managed to break his foot riding a motocross bike in Turkey. He too had flown ahead to meet his team again as they passed through Uzbekistan.
The Chelsea was owned by a local Chelsea football fan and got busy quickly as the night progressed. They also had their own brewery attached and made, without doubt, the worst beer I have ever had; it tasted like kumis, or sour horse milk, which isn’t good at the best of times, particularly in a beer (just believe me).
As I planned to leave for Samarkand the next day, I got up early next morning and wondered down to see some of the sights. The hostel was conveniently only a 15 minute walk from the Khazrati Iman Architectural Complex, a collection of several Mosques, Madrasahs (educational centres) and Mausoleums (tombs). The early buildings date back to the 16th century, but they were marvelously restored in 2007 and now stand as a breathtaking collection of 500 year old architecture.
The Muyi Muborak Madrasah (‘sacred hair madrasah’) is said to have some hair from the Prophet Muhammad. I searched around for a bit to see if another madrasah had any of my hair, but they didn’t. The Muyi also houses what is believed to be the world’s oldest Quran – the 8th century Uthman Koran.
Many of the buildings are adorned by the trademark blue-glazed tiled domes of this era – some of the most architectural striking sights I have ever seen. I must admit I was surprised and felt somewhat ignorant after seeing such beautiful buildings; I never even knew they existed.
Quick observation: Everyone I’ve met in Uzbekistan so far has gold teeth – probably easier than carrying around bags of worthless money.
The journey from Tashkent to Samarkand was only just over 300km, a mere hop compared to my recent daily mileage, and I completed it easily on one tank of fuel. For some reason I seemed to be getting more miles to the gallon recently – superior fuel? I doubt it!
The journey was flat and passed though the same fertile plains that surround Tashkent, with lots of fruit and veg for sale by the side of the road, which I stopped to buy for lunch.
It was around 40 degrees C (104 F) and I was melting. For the final hour of the journey I took my jacket off; there just wasn’t enough airflow through it to cool me down. I slowed down, of course, but I thought it was worth the risk of horrible gravel rash over heat stroke. That’s the trouble with ‘Round the World’ trips: there’s just not enough space to bring clothing for all weathers. What I really needed was a summer biker’s jacket as my Kilimanjaro was just too hot for this semi-arid climate in summer.
All along the road were fuel stations, most of them looking brand new, but their only disadvantage was they had no fuel.
I’d managed to get petrol (benzene) OK in the capital, but outside Tashkent I had heard it was very hard to come by. It seems Uzbekistan has plenty of oil & gas reserves, but not the means or expertise to extract it (yet). This meant I had to buy petrol on the black market, which was easy enough (if you asked around for a while), but meant I was getting fuel of dubious quality out of old plastic water bottles. I found my supply in Samarkand along a main road inside a clandestine garage.
Uzbekistan was at least very friendly; I was getting more attention on the road than anywhere else I’ve been on this world trip. Everywhere I went people and other car drivers would wave and give me the ‘thumbs up’. Cars would also pull up to me at lights for a chat, or to wave and say ‘Hi!’ It was nice.
I found my Samarkand guesthouse easily, thanks to my iPhone map, and it was another old, beautiful complex in the centre of the old city.
I met more Mongol Rally teams there, including one in an old Fiat Panda which had been broken for longer than it had been running – fair play to its drivers for keeping it going!
During the past few days, the repair that the kind chef had done to my biker trousers’ crotch in Mongolia had unraveled, and I was now dangerously close to being arrested for indecent exposure. Luckily, there happened to be a tailor’s down the road, and the lovely girls in there fixed them for me for free. That was the second thing I’ve had given to me free in Uzbekistan; it was quickly becoming one of the friendliest and prettiest places I’ve visited.
I’m not usually a city person, preferring the open landscape of the countryside to city architecture, but Samarkand may be an exception. It is filled with exceptionally pretty architecture, mosques, fountains and greenery. It was the first time I could remember smelling the fresh aroma of green grass, plants and trees for a while.
I liked the relaxed, open feel of the city and was glad I’d planned to stay a couple of days. It had everything I needed – a cheap room, good food, interesting history and friendly people (OK, it was just missing the free beer).
Conveniently, the largest tourist attraction in Samarkand just happened to be 10 minutes’ walk from my hostel (again): The Registan.
The Registan (meaning ‘sandy place’) was built as a public square way back in the 15th century (when I assume it used to be sandy), and was where people gathered to hear speeches, witness executions and see the latest Hollywood Blockbusters. It is framed on 3 sides by three Madrasahs, each one strikingly beautiful with amazingly intricate blue-glazed tile patterns, domed roofs and towering minarets.
Inside are courtyards, lecture rooms and the old dormitories the students used to live in, now used to sell local handicraft, snacks and house interesting museums.
The first Madrasah (Ulugh Beg Madrasah) was completed by the ruler at the time, Ulugh Beg, in 1420. He also built one in the city of Bukhara, transforming the cities into cultural centers of learning in Central Asia. Ulugh Beg was quite a remarkable man – a mathematics genius, astronomer and ruler of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan and most of Afghanistan for almost half a century (1411 to 1449).
Samarkand to Bukhara was an even shorter journey of 280km. The landscape was again flat, but the fertile plains slowly disappeared and were replaced by semi-arid scrub with the occasional empty fuel station.
It was getting hotter, and I took my jacket off again for part of the journey.
I was looking for some shade to stop for lunch, but I had as much chance of finding some as I had a drive-in McDonalds (and I really fancied a Big Mac!)
I passed three or four police checkpoints along the way, but only once was I directed to pull over for a routine document check. I was pulled over a second time for cutting into a long line of traffic and slapped on the wrist.
Once again, my advance planning paid off, and I rode straight up to another wonderfully pretty guesthouse in the centre of the old city, along with half the teams from the London-Mongol Rally. Why didn’t I do this ‘planning’ thing more often?
This time I was in a dormitory, as the single rooms were a bit more expensive, and shared it with three top lads on the Rally from Australia and New Zealand in a Subaru Forrester. I liked this guesthouse most of all. It was in a great location, had a great social courtyard where everyone gathered, and they even put on 3 hot, cheap and delicious meals a day for 5 US dollars each.
Bukhara is an easy city to explore, and all the main sights are within walking distance; more beautiful 14th and 15th century architecture than you can shake two sticks at.
Highlights for me were the charming Char-Minar (‘four minarets’), with its unique, Indian-style design and four minarets with sky blue cupolas (built in 1807), and the much earlier 48m (160ft) high Kalyan Minaret (built in 1127), where criminals used to be hurled off the top to their deaths right up until 1920.
The next day I bumped into Nathan again as he arrived from Samarkand, and went off to grab a beer and a catch-up by the picturesque pond in the old town centre. Later we tried to find something that resembled ‘nightlife’, but the closest we came was an almost empty cabaret-style club, where the police came in and told the owner to turn the music down. The only other people in there were a group of local men sat around drinking fruit juice. When we went to go home, they all turned out to be taxi drivers waiting for us to finish! Why can’t clubs be like that in Norwich?